Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witness (Questions 240 - 259)

TUESDAY 16 JUNE 1998

SIR RICHARD WILSON, KC

  240.  Of course, it is enormously difficult to get these concepts over, important though they are, to the public, because I think, as one of the lobby representatives told us a couple of weeks ago, personalities are often more interesting than policies and politics?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  There is a problem, which is familiar. I had the experience, as I think I referred to earlier, of working for Tony Benn for four years and he at that time was very much in favour of consultation and passing that information to the public. I can remember all sorts of incidents when one's instincts were overruled and one learnt a lot from it, but one of the things I am afraid I did learn is that sometimes you make a big effort to be open and you give out the information, but nobody reads it. That is just the sad truth, that quite often the one bit of information people really want is the one bit of information they cannot have, but I do not regard that as a reason for not pressing on with it.

Chairman

  241.  Just like the Wilson Report this morning, you mean?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  If I may say so, yes.

Mr Tyrie

  242.  Or your advice to Alastair Campbell?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  Yes, which we have already agreed upon. I hope my clarification of that is clearly on the record.

Mr Bradley

  243.  Clearly Ministers are much more (to use that horrible word) proactive now in communicating than they may have been in the past, perhaps recognising that politics and public relations, when they are done well, are the same thing. It is about communicating and, indeed, listening and responding. But do you think the balance at the moment between Ministers and their special advisers and civil servants and the GICS has reached the right balance, and if not, is it just a matter of bedding down or are there structural problems there?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  I do not believe there are structural problems there. I believe that there is always in every department a process of settling down and I think some of what we have seen in relation to the heads of information reflects that.

  244.  May I turn to something that is related to the bricks and breaking glass which you referred to earlier. I do not know whether this comes within your area of responsibility but I raise it simply because somebody rang me repeatedly from France last night in mounting terms of anxiety, saying that the French media's coverage of the unfortunate rioting in the South of France yesterday carried absolutely no reference to British Government statements, which she found both distressing and, indeed, humiliating. She tried to telephone the No. 10 press office last night and was told that she should ring back at nine o'clock in the morning. She spoke to the Consul General in Marseilles who told her that he did not have a press officer. As I say, I do not know whether this is your territory as the Head of the Home Civil Service but I mention it to you because you might know the man or a woman who is responsible. But it does seem to me that we are missing a trick, that the British Government ought to be well represented out there, ought to be able to respond to these events which are, frankly, all too predictable?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  I think all I can do is offer to look into that. It is way off my territory but I understand the point and I will get someone to write to you.

  245.  It is not so much writing to me, it is that if there are problems then they need to be attended to very quickly. I think John Hipwood mentioned when he was giving evidence here that there was a problem with 24-hour access to government information, often it was difficult to get an instant response when you needed it to meet a legitimate deadline, and it seems to me that this is the other side of the coin. I find it hard to believe that there was nobody at No. 10 to respond.
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  I am surprised but I will take this away, if I may, Mr Chairman.

Chairman:  Obviously you are not responsible for the Foreign Office. On the other hand, if it is a home government objective to get the World Cup to this country, or to England anyway, in the year 2006, then if that is a Government objective and that is being damaged by the failure to communicate Jack Straw's condemnations on the floor of the House or whatever, obviously that is a failure of government policy in a way, is it not, the communication of it?

Mr Bradley

  246.  I am not suggesting that GICS people should be sent abroad to lie for us but they certainly ought to be there to represent the Government.
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  I am surprised by what you said and I will try and see whether something has gone wrong and whether we should put it right.

Miss Johnson

  247.  Perhaps I can follow on, to begin with, from the last point about the long hours and access to information, which you have already discussed to some degree, but I found it quite surprising that Mike Granatt's report to you on the Government Information Service should contain comments about the long hours, not because it is not a problem for people to work long hours, because it obviously is, but because of the 24-hour nature of media activity, which has not come about either in the last few months or, indeed, with the general election result of May last year or, indeed, probably in the five years before that, but over a period of time, which has been a fact of life for some time, I would have thought. I think it provokes the question whether there has been sufficient management attention given overall to the Government Information Service and the way in which it operates, the budgetary issues, the financing of it, whether it has sufficient staff to meet the demands and whether, in effect, what happened, or one of the things that happened, last May was that actually the Government Information Service found itself under greater pressure because of focuses on things like outcomes and the nature of the Labour Party's machine in opposition and was not geared up, but perhaps ought to have been geared up, long before that? It is nothing particularly to do with the change of Government but a change in style which perhaps the Information Service has not kept abreast of over the last decade in total?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  I think we all were taken aback by discovering how far the Government Information and Communication Service, perhaps in some departments—I am not saying it is universal—had fallen behind in some ways, and I think that has been a lesson for all of us. But the problem of long hours is one I take very seriously. I take it seriously not only in relation to the GICS but more generally across the Civil Service. We, as you know, over the last five years have undertaken a substantial amount of de-layering and that has had the effect of putting greater responsibility on to staff—I do not know if you know what I mean but the Grade 7, that sort of middle-management level—and I think there is evidence emerging that a lot of people are working very long hours. If that is just happening for a peak of work, then I think you say good in a way because people are feeling needed and everyone can rise to a crisis when they have to. But if that is the norm, then it becomes a worry. It is not right that people should work very, very long hours without any sense of relief coming, and this is a management issue which I know that the head of the Government Information and Communication Service is concerned about. Like any management problem we can only deal with it by taking it up with the management of individual departments where we perceive a particular problem to be developing.

  248.  You think it is confined to particular departments, do you, rather than a problem across the service?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  I think it is a problem across the service in the Civil Service. I think there is quite a lot of evidence. It obviously varies. There are still variations between different parts of different departments, but there are signs at the moment that younger people are not only benefiting from having more chance to show their paces but are actually snowed under and that is something which, if it is true, we do need to deal with.

  249.  But that is extra resources?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  I must be very careful about extra resources because the Government is, as the Chancellor explained last week, following a very tough policy on public expenditure. It is a mistake always to think it is about extra resources. It can be about how you do the work. I am now talking about previous departments I have been in. Sometimes people answering letters from Members of Parliament—and I think it is acknowledged freely there is an issue there at the moment—are not going about the task in a way that is most likely to provide an efficient service quickly. Sometimes just by looking at the way you do the job you can make it quicker and better and relieve people's problems. So you have to be a bit careful about assuming automatically it is always more money.

  250.  In terms of the individual departments there is also a comment in this report about the degree of devolution and the problems of job mobility, but also in relation to what you have just been saying, the question of devolution to departments will affect presumably to some degree how you can make changes to efficient working, to the style of working, to 24-hour coverage and all the rest of it, and I wonder how you are going to approach that issue because there are clearly questions to which that gives rise?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  Yes. I am in favour of the decentralisation which we have put through on personnel matters over the last decade. I would not want to go back to the days when everything was dictated from the Treasury or the Cabinet Office. But I do think it is the case possibly that in decentralising to departments, delegating great responsibility to departments, we are actually now running into a new series of problems. By having much greater self-management of careers, applying for advertisements, allowing departments to negotiate their own pay scales, so that real pay differentials are developing in some departments and others, in the GICS as elsewhere, and by having appraisal systems which may be different between different departments, we may unintentionally have started to erect barriers between departments. I think it is very important indeed that the Civil Service should continue to be a career where people can move between departments and broaden their experience. If departments get too shut up, inward-looking, it is unhealthy and it does not make for a good development of the people who work in them. So I am only in month five or month six, and one of the things I have done is to ask for work to be put in hand on this question of mobility because I am not happy that enough mobility is taking place. I think there is too little movement between departments. That is my strong suspicion and I think we may need to do something about it. What it is I do not know at the moment but I think there is a problem there which I have taken on board.

  251.  But you will have to grasp the nettle and do it at some point?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  I do not think I am going at the moment to hazard views on what we might do but I think we may have to grasp the nettle, yes.

  252.  Obviously what you are saying, I take it, really is that the Government Information Service in a way highlights the problem about mobility across the rest of the Civil Service, because it is small and you can see the problems very rapidly with it?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  Exactly. Very often the Government Information Service is where you actually spot problems which are happening more generally because it is small and it does operate very much at the boundaries of politics and policies.

  253.  What about the use or the introduction of people who are not career civil servants into the Government Information Service, again a topic which you could apply to the Civil Service more generally, and some posts are open to competition outside and what have you? What is your view about how much the Government Information Service ought to be, or is desirably, staffed by those who are career grade civil servants and those who have come from a professional background in the media or marketing from outside, because the other aspect of the Government Information Service, I understand from Mike Granatt's report, is that half of the specialists there are specialists in pay, publicity and marketing and obviously our focus tends to be away from those, but it means there is a substantial element of that and there might be reasons also for attracting people with marketing backgrounds into jobs with that particular focus?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  Yes. My short answer to your question is that I am in favour of merit. I am very attached to the basic principle of the Service, that people are recruited on merit and promoted on merit and that you have in place systems which are as objective in the measurement of merit and assessment of merit as they can possibly be. The competitions which have been held for the filling of the heads of information posts recently have differed whether they were internal to a department or internal to the Civil Service or open. We have had examples of all three but all of them have been carried out, so far as possible, on the basis of assessment of merit and I think that is the main determining factor. There is always a judgment when you look at a particular post whether you should have an internal competition, whether you have a sufficient source or wealth of talent or any available in the service to bring on so that you do not need to go outside, or whether you would benefit either in testing your talent against the outside world or in bringing in new blood. There is always a judgment to be made and it varies from case to case. It varies in Permanent Secretary posts, it varies in GICS posts, it varies elsewhere. The crucial thing is that we have to keep up the standards of quality of our staff and we need from time to time to test the quality of our staff against the outside world.

  254.  There is one particular area, or one further area, that I am interested in, but in relation to what you have just been saying about people moving backwards and forwards, certainly I think you in some of your earlier comments and certainly Sir Bernard Ingham talked about the role of the Government Information Service in supplying information and trying to help journalists do their job better as well as getting over the Government's message, as it were, that those two things go hand-in-hand, but there is a particular role in trying to help journalists and it is surely better, in fact, if we have people some of whom have been on the other side of that, at least some of whom are on the inside, because a poacher turned gamekeeper (or whichever way round you want to see it) is a good person to understand what the issues are the other side of that fence?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  Yes and, indeed, Bernard Ingham himself was someone who came in with albeit humble experience of being on the press side of the fence. There is a balance to be struck and you do need to keep up the morale of people down the line who work like mad and you do need to give them a chance to compete. I think that the assessment centre procedure which Mike Granatt has invented is an excellent innovation because it is actually a way of finding out in depth what talents the different candidates have and giving them the opportunity to show their paces.

  255.  May I go back, finally, to one of your opening comments, which was that you had a number of comments or disagreements or things that you did not sign up to (I think was the expression you used) in what Bernard Ingham had said to us in his evidence but you would allow those to emerge during the course of the morning. I do not think they are very clearly emerging at this point and it would be helpful for us to know if there are any significant areas on which you have a difference of view on what Sir Bernard Ingham said to us?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  There are two particular points I would take. This is not to say I agree with everything else he said but there are two in particular I would like to take. One of them is that he said that Alastair Campbell should be paid from Labour Party funds. I disagree with that. Alastair Campbell is not a Labour Party spokesman. I am absolutely clear about that. If he were a Labour Party spokesman the point would be a legitimate one, but he actually speaks on behalf of the Government and I think that is a proper expenditure for the taxpayer. That is one thing I would say. The other was that I recall he made some remarks about creeping politicisation. He thought that the Government Information Service is becoming politicised. I simply do not believe that is true. As I have already said, the recruitment of people to fill these vacancies has been done through an independent, neutral assessment centre process based on merit and I am entirely satisfied that those posts have not been politicised. If he were making the point that Government Information Service staff work in a political environment, there is nothing new about that and he most certainly operated in a political environment. So just two points.

Mr Shepherd

  256.  Just to follow on from that, I am slightly confused about the linen. I guess we all are in one sense. It is, of course, the Prime Minister's comments on the floor of the House of Commons by citing that Alastair Campbell was particularly good at attacking Conservatives that raise the issue as to where boundaries are drawn in this matter. Clearly the Prime Minister—and I do not hold anything against him—in the heat of Prime Minister's Question Time and the response that one gives, gave a line that seemed to open up what others have perceived in the press, that this was, as in Mrs Thatcher's days, a particularly proactive press officer and the distinction between those who are employed by the Civil Service on Civil Service terms and conditions and those who are engaged in a wider political battle—and this seems constant from the evidence that we have had over a period of time, Bernard Ingham versus Alastair Campbell, a lacuna in this form maybe in the Major years—I am not so sure there was a tax on press officers for being so partisan—and it is in that context, where, as you said, he is very proactive, wants to get involved across boundaries, but one is slightly concerned as to the politicisation of the Chief Press Officer to a Prime Minister, that some of us thought there was a resonance. Can you distinguish between the two functions, the closeness of a press officer obviously to the head of Government, and that is not just in a government role but also in the fact that he is leader invariably of the political party as well, and whether there can be a distinction that these are funded from party political funds when he is doing that second role or being, as the Prime Minister used the words, "particularly good" at that second role, attacking the Conservatives in his pronouncements?
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  I have made clear that I think what the Prime Minister said has been misinterpreted. As to whether the job can be done in the way that I described earlier, that is to say, presenting the Government's policies in a political context but not becoming political in a partisan way, I believe that is actually what Alastair Campbell does. A lot of what he does is a great deal less glamorous and exciting than this kind of discussion might suggest. If he were to go wrong—and I do emphasise all I was saying earlier was that if he were to go wrong—I would go along and say, "Watch it." I am not saying he has gone wrong but if he were to go wrong there would be mechanisms in place to make sure that we had the touch on the tiller to get it right. I actually think he does a very good job in a very difficult position, a very exposed position. If there were not all this publicity and press about him, I would simply be saying that is running right to my mind, but it is something where he is, rightly, himself wary and where I would wish also to be wary on his behalf. I think we all recognise the danger but I do not actually believe that the danger has materialised.

  257.  I really have quite a difficulty between the distinction of one function and the other. I accept that you say that the Prime Minister's remarks have been misinterpreted on the floor of the House of Commons. It is just that I do think there should be a distinction between the roles. That we are agreed on. You are very sensitive to it. You have highlighted it. I noticed that Sir Bernard Ingham also was sensitive to that point about being a public employee, a public servant, civil servant, etc., the non-political nature of that, and——
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  Perhaps I can put it in a different way because I did watch Bernard from a polite distance doing the job for some years, and what I have said actually, to some extent——

  258.  And you acknowledged he gets it wrong or may have got it wrong?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Making mistakes occasionally in that job would be easily forgiven because I think it is an extraordinarily difficult job to do. The thing is that Bernard also did a job which the vast majority of the time he got right and did with some distinction, and what is really notable is that the moment he got a foot wrong people were on to him. You were all giving him a very rough time the other day—and you were right in a sense—about holding a microphone for Mrs Thatcher on the steps of whatever that French palace was after the election results were through. One false step and you were on to him. To some extent that is some protection for all of us. You are so alert. You are looking at it the whole time. Actually he did not produce many instances in however long he was there. So I am now saying something on Bernard Ingham's behalf. I think the fact is everybody is alert to this and has great fun if the person gets it wrong, but it is difficult doing that job.

  259.  As a matter of fact, I think the French palace you were referring to was the British Embassy.
  (Sir Richard Wilson)  It looks like a French palace.


 
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